I must admit to a fascination with greeting cards. I think it started when I was about four years old. I have an early memory of being with my mother in a small drug store in my neighborhood that sold the sundry soaps, Band-Aids, batteries and medicines. This drug store also had an aisle of beautifully decorated cards for many different occasions. Since I was only about 40 inches tall or so I was eye height to the “birthstone” birthday cards. These were cards with a fake gem attached by glue that represented the “jewel” for your birth month. So, if you had a birthday in April your “birthstone” was a Diamond, May an Emerald, March an Aquamarine. I often would stare at the cards and covet them – until one day I stealthy poked at a card that had a Peridot, a lovely green, glued to it. I dislodged it at the very moment the store manager saw me, and I got in trouble. I think what I mostly felt was shame at being caught – and of course my mom was mad at me as well. You would think that forever more I would shy away from greeting cards – avoiding the resurgence of a bad memory.
Since then I have found that I am somewhat resilient– I bounced back and are forever more in love with greeting cards, their pithy sayings, their important quotes and their ability to make me laugh and cry within the same 20 feet of an aisle. Once, at a Hallmark store, with my niece, we were laughing so hard that the owner of the shop came to see what we were doing – just laughing I said. Sometimes I buy cards and do not send them. I keep them, thinking I will send them at the right moment – but instead I use them to remind myself that words have a way of tugging at our heart, rekindling a memory, and can also create connections thought broken.
One card that I bought about five years ago is plain white – no decorations – and a quote by Dostoevsky hand lettered on the front. It says: “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of things left unsaid.” I often think about that quote when I am with clients that are are struggling in relationships, be it with their partner, child, parent, or friend. They share their sadness and frustration – they often express their wish for things to be as they used to be – loving, fun, kind, and connected. We work together to excavate the past, to find clues that could right the wrongs and maybe gift us with the secret code to turn the present toward the past (with some of their gained wisdom thrown in).
One client is diligent in her journaling, completing homework and setting boundaries. She has used our sessions to catapult her into self-awareness, and discovered that she can control her anxiety by being aware of triggers. She shares that she has learned to notice when she “gets that feeling” that her irritability might flare – and works hard to control her reactions. “I think now before I go off the deep end.” She has a wry sense of humor – a way with words – that makes us laugh sometimes – the deep belly jarring laughs that we all need in our life. One thing that continues to get in the way with some of her relationships is what she has left unsaid. She describes a dilemma with her parent, sharing the story. I will ask her “what did you say?” She responds, “I didn’t say anything.” I will ask why and she often states that she is not sure she could express herself in the “right way”. She reminds me that when she was a child what she said did not matter. We take time to review how far she has come in her journey. I share that I have noticed her ability to be diplomatic as well as assertive and that it might be time to say the things that are unsaid. We practice in session, the empty chair for sure, giving her the chance to be comfortable with her words – to change course – and leave little unsaid. She tells me she is ready to say the unsaid.
When I think of my relationship with greeting cards – the first experience as a four-year-old, seeing the sparkly gems – followed by my coveting cards as an adult – I know now there is a home for that plain white card, about things left unsaid – in the hands of my client. By the way, the Peridot I pried off the fancy card? It happens to be the birthstone of my son.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in private practice. She also enjoys teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the same university where she earned her counseling degree.